a guest Jul 22nd, 2019 98 Never
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- Someday there will be music here, it will be hopeful but also middle eastern and therefore profoundly depressing probably. There might be some voice clips here like Dan Carlin does, first maybe Ben Gurion, then Arafat and Carter and Sadat. I’ll run them for as long as I feel is necessary to lend this podcast sufficient gravitas, no more then three minutes, four tops. The intro will fade and I will say something predictable like, “Thanks for tuning into the Jerusalem Out of Focus, my name is Joel and I will be taking you through the lives of Jews, Palestinians and others who have made an impact on the Holy Land’s tumultuous history. This is Episode one, “The Young Engineer: The Childhood of Theodore Herzl” This is my first shot at podcasting so I hope you find the podcast entertaining and informative on your way to work or what have you.
- I spent a long time trying to figure out where to begin the story of the Jews in the modern middle east. There are hundreds of ways to frame the issue and each of them seem to lend themselves to certain biases and narratives. If I started the story by talking the lives of arab villagers through the nineteenth century to the twentieth century waves of Jewish migration it would lend itself to a very “Pro palestinian” way of telling events. If I took the opposite approach and started with the ancient kingdom of David it would lend itself to supporting the colonization of Palestine by jewish settlers. If I ran for the neutral ground by talking about how Jews and Arabs tell the story of Abraham and his family a lot of atheist listeners would ask why I am feeding superstitions. I don’t think there is a starting point I could pick that would make everyone or even most people very happy.
- So with that in mind, I’d like to take us back to the Egyptian Mediteranian Coast, the small booming town of Port Said on November 16, 1869. Its a national celebration across Egypt, they had completed the greatest engineering marvel of the age, the construction of the Suez Canal and the government had spared no expense to light up the whole country. The nineteenth century opened with humiliation and defeat as Napoleon’s modern army completely obliterated the old Mameluk elite in a single afternoon in the shadow of the pyramids but a string of determined and ruthless reformers dragged Egypt into the modern age. Across Egypt canals were built, telegraph wires laid, schools and factors sprang up across the landscape as the Egyptian leaders showed their determiniation to make Alexandria and Cairo the equals of Paris and London. It was not a pleseant process, the reforms begun by Egypt’s first modern ruler Muhammad Ali in the early nineteenth century included scouring the countryside for healthy young boys, abducting them from their families, setting them to work in dangerous conditions in arms factories and tattooing them with serial numbers to make it difficult to escape. Egypt’s rapid development had come at tremendous cost and immense social strain as everything from family to faith were crushed down and reformed into tools of the state and new european ideas were on everyone’s lips. Nevertheless immense material progress was made and with Egyptian labour and european investments they had changed the face of the Earth forever.
- Verdi was called in to play an orchestra, heads of state like Empress Eugenie of France and the Emperror Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian empire joined a crowd of thousands which included tourists from London and Istanbul, journalists for all the world’s major newspapers as well as the egyptian peasants and artisans were all there to witness this defining moment in Egyptian and world history.
- The hero was the great engineer Ferdinand Lesseps, the great engineer who had planned the canal and overseen its development. He was present as a guest of honour among the heads of state. He changed the face of the middle east and his face was on the front page of almost every paper in Europe and America.
- The mood in Egypt was summed up by King Urabi, ‘My country is no longer in Africa, we are now part of Europe.’ It seemed as if the decades long goal to join the ranks of modern nations was being fulfilled and that there would be nothing beyond the grasp of its future generations.
- Sadly for them it would turn out that far from the symbol of Egyptian power and glory the canal would be the noose around its neck. Egypt could not afford to pay back the loans given by Egypt and France to pay for its construction after its export economy fell on tough times. The same inability to pay back the loans needed for mondernisation that were slowly forcing the Ottoman Empire to hand over financial and political power to Europeans were strangling Egypt as well. Over the following decades England would assume greater and greater control until egypt was reduced to a meager puppet government whose whole society was watched, managed and repressed so as to maintain English control over the all important Canal.
- Ferdinand De Lessp hadn’t just re engineered the geograghy of Egypt, he changed the face of the whole destiny of the Arabs as a whole for the next century until it was finally nationalized by Nasser in the 1950s. But his work would sieze the childhood imagination of a child who would have as big an impact, a young Hungarian Jewish boy of 8 named Theodore Herzl would come to idolize Lessepp’s world changing vision.
- As an adult Herzl would light the spark of Zionism, Jewish Nationalism, in Europe seeking through the same simple, ancient maneuver used by Moses, to lead the Jews out of the increasingly hostile European world to deliverance in the Promised Land, into Palestine. Herzl did not originate Zionism, it had emerged in Russia decades before he began his work, rather his role was as Zionism’s salesmen to the comfortable assimilated Jews of western europe and heads of state around the world.
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